By Rich Figel
On Saturday afternoon, my cameraman and I got to interview Matt Catingub, the artistic director of the Hawaii Pops, and film the rehearsal prior to that night's concert with Jo Dee Messina at the Convention Center in Waikiki. I originally wanted to do the shoot in August so we could run it in this month's Career Changers TV show, but as it turns out, many of the musicians live off island (including Matt, who resides in Las Vegas now) and since these are seasoned professionals, the only practice session they had scheduled was the same day as the performance.
Having been around musicians since my college days in the '70s -- played some slide guitar myself -- I'm no stranger to sound checks and amplified music. The first live concerts I ever went to were at places like Roosevelt Stadium in New Jersey, standing in front of gigantic amp walls blasting the Grateful Dead and the Eagles. In fact, I even took part in a Montclair State College research study in which subjects legally smoked pot that was produced by the U.S. government, to see if there was a link between hearing and marijuana use. The Speech and Hearing Department professor who conducted the test got his idea that grass might enhance hearing abilities or sound recognition, from his personal observation of stoned concert-goers who were really, really into whatever the band was playing. Also, they were able to endure decibel levels that caused older folks to cover their ears in obvious pain.
Now that I'm in my 50s, long past those partying and pot-smoking days, I've become sensitive to noise of all sorts. That's one reason my musical tastes evolved and I prefer acoustic instruments, classical music and jazz. Even back in college and when I lived in New York City, there was always something about hearing folk rock or live jazz in small venues that made the experience more personal and intimate -- unlike rock concerts where you're elbow to elbow with thousands of drunk, sweaty, tone-deaf kids whooping it up instead of actually listening to what's being played on stage.
Anyhow, Matt Catingub was a terrific interview. He plays sax, piano, woodwinds, sings, arranges, composes and conducts. The music artists and orchestras he's worked with makes up an amazing resume of big stars and symphonies around the world, yet he's a very humble, down-to-earth guy. At my request, he played a little James Bond music for our CCTV preview of the upcoming Hawaii Pops concert on Oct. 20 (order tickets early because they're selling faster than anticipated). Being on stage next to the grand piano he was playing, you could feel the vibrations of the notes. Then he segued into the opening of a familiar Journey song, and I was puzzled -- that doesn't belong in the Bond theme concert, and as far as I knew, it wasn't part of Jo Dee Messina's country-rock repertoire. As it turned out, she did perform "Don't Stop Believing" during rehearsal and it sounded great with the entire orchestra backing her. To call the show a "concert" is a bit of a misnomer though. They have a dance floor on both sides, and the table seating allows people to enjoy drinks and food that is available for purchase outside the ballrooms on the top floor of the Convention Center. The idea is they want music fans to let their hair down, boogie if the mood strikes them, and just have a great time.
After we finished the interview, I hung around to listen to the sound check. Jo Dee Messina and the orchestra went through her entire set with minimal interruptions. I was sitting about two tables back from the center, and the sound mix was very good. A bit on the loud side, but not overbearing -- unless you wanted to talk to someone next to you. However, when I stood in other spots around the perimeter of the ballroom, man... it was REALLY loud. Perhaps, it was because I was closer to the speakers or the acoustics of the room. But this seems to be the trend at nearly all public venues, whether it's basketball at the Stan Sheriff Arena, football games at Aloha Stadium, swim meets at the Kailua public pool ("DON'T FORGET, SNACKS ARE ON SALE AT THE CONCESSION STAND!") or Sunday church services where they have live, super-amplified music emanating from public school facilities they use. Somewhere along the line, somebody got the idea that louder is better. (I have to say it's not as bad at the Stan Sheriff or Aloha Stadium as it used to be. Could be they don't need to crank up the volume as much when the house is half-empty.)
I think it also explains why in recent years that audiences of all ages have been rediscovering the joys of "less is more" through unplugged performances on MTV and small radio studios, and cabaret type experiences where there's a couple of mikes and two or three amps on stage. But to hear a live orchestra, jazz quartet or bluegrass/country groups in the raw is something special. Unfortunately, the economics of selling enough tickets to pay the musicians, etc., makes that increasingly difficult to experience firsthand. Still, I strongly encourage you to support Hawaii Pops, the revamped Hawaii Symphony, and the Hawaii Youth Symphony -- three different music organizations that we'll be featuring in upcoming Career Changers TV shows.